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Burn the Ships


Hernan Cortes, famous Spanish explorer, made history in the year 1519. After landing in the New World with 600 men, they anchored the boats to go ashore. He then ordered the ships to be burned. This sent a clear message to his men: There is no turning back. Two years later, he succeeded in his conquest of the Aztec empire. There are countless debates on whether he burned them or just destroyed them, but for me, the purpose remains the same. There is no turning back.


Many times in our lives, we believe we are moving forward but have not released something from the past so we are unable to move on. Instead of moving forward in the fast lane uninhibited and free, we are slugging forward through wet concrete dragging a few boulders. One of my favorite authors, Mark Batterson, says we should “get rid of dead yesterdays and unborn tomorrows”. Dead yesterdays need to be buried or burned and left behind.


Sara Groves in her song “Painting Pictures of Egypt” sings “I’ve been painting pictures of Egypt and leaving out what it lacks”. She is referring to the ancient Israelites wandering miserably in the wilderness after escaping centuries of slavery in Egypt crying out to go back to their captors! History has a way of tricking us. The longer we carry it, the more the narrative of history changes. We forget the bad. We forget the good. The history becomes something that can be used against us. The history lies.


The most dangerous thing that history does is beckon us backward. As if reliving our history is an option for our future. It never is. The way things were will never be again. The yesterdays are dead and we must leave them to lie where they lay.


History also leaves us ruminating in regret. Marshall Goldsmith says in his new book, “The Earned Life”, “….[regret] accept its inevitability but reduce its frequency. Regret is the depressing counterweight to finding fulfillment in a complex world.” When we are focused on regret, our history dominates our present and our future. Failing forward is a more appropriate action that can move us toward another decision, or another outcome versus regretting something in our history.


Regardless of the successes and failures in our lives, the way we frame our history and hold onto it or let go of it matters. Burning the ships is about using history to move us to the next step and not looking back. We learned the lesson once. We get to live this day once. Then we move to the next. The ships had their purpose to bring them across the Atlantic for Cortes and his men. Then the purpose was gone. Everything for a season and for a purpose.


“We are living an earned life when the choices, risks, and effort we make in each moment align with an overarching purpose in our lives, regardless of the eventual outcome,” Goldsmith says in “The Earned Life”. Regardless of the eventual outcome. If our effort is aligned with our purpose, it stands to reason we live with less regret. History with regret is strangling. History with misalignment leaves gaps that we carry. Undone work. Undone business. These undones are also like the regrets of history and have to be burned with the rest of the ships in the harbor.


I am an actualist. Not that any of us have ships we can burn or a harbor nearby (not where I live anyway). Write a list of the history that is interfering with your present or your future. Document the regrets, the undones, all the rumination in your mind. Put it all down on paper and burn it. Bury it. Actually set it free. Leave it behind. Watch it go. Feel the freedom of living in today with a new path of tomorrows ahead.


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